The Glacial Update of Georgia’s Water Plan


Opinion written by Benita M. Dodd:

Imagine a group project today where everyone must put their electronic devices in a basket and use a blackboard, notepad, pencil, slide rule or manual typewriter. Consider how many people still drive a 1955 or ‘65 Chevrolet on a daily basis. Then ask yourself if it makes sense to operate a state based on a 50-year-old water use plan.

All of the above are ineffective, inefficient, illogical and outdated; much has changed over the decades.  Yet Alabama and Florida sought for decades to restrict Georgia to half-century-old water guidance, even as population, water use and demand have changed.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has finally moved beyond the tristate blame game and accepted the need to update the Water Control Manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin. The Corps’ massive final Environmental Impact Statement on the manual for the ACF in Alabama, Florida and Georgia is being published today by the Environmental Protection Agency for a 30-day review.

The flood of protests over this update, which increases how much water can be stored in Lake Lanier reservoir for future needs in North Georgia, is likely to put recent protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline to shame. Millions of dollars were spent as a horde of environmental activists and Alabama and Florida officials fought to prevent Georgia from getting a reasonable and justifiable increase in water from this river basin – which originates in Georgia – to accommodate population growth, development and other needs. There’s a reason it’s been called the “Tristate Water War.”

The ACF manual dates from February 1958. In 2000, Governor Roy Barnes requested increased water supply withdrawals from Lanier and the Chattahoochee (downstream) for Atlanta over the next 30 years. But “rules is rules” and, in 2002, the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) rejected the request. Amid ongoing litigation, in 2013 Governor Nathan Deal restated the need for 705 million gallons per day (mgd) to meet Georgia’s water needs, and extended the timeframe to 2040 rather than 2030, as requested in 2000.

In the meantime, metro Atlanta did not sit on its hands. Under the 15-year-old Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, the region became a frugal steward of water. The 15 counties, 92 cities and 55 water systems in the district have seen a 10 percent drop in total water use since 2000, even as its population grew by more than a million. There has been a 30 percent-plus reduction in per capita water use, tolevels lower than in Tallahassee, Fla., and Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., and sewer spills have been reduced 50 percent.

In 2015, with conservation measures succeeding, the state reduced its request to around 600 mgd through 2050. Not surprisingly, both Florida and Alabama have sought to limit metro Atlanta’s withdrawals, seeking more conservation measures and limits on consumptive use (i.e., when water withdrawn is not directly returned to the basin).

The final environmental impact statement, eight years in the making, assessed changes to water control plans and manuals and expanded supply options from Lake Lanier and its Buford Dam.

It helps that water infrastructure legislation passed this month in Congress removes a 2014 ultimatum to the three states’ governors to negotiate a settlement or risk Congress stepping in. Further, the Corps maintains that any proposals to change minimum flows in the basin were not considered for the manual, because the Corps’ role is to implement agreed-upon (existing) flows. Nor will the Corps consider proposals on dam changes, which could “increase the risk to the structural integrity of the projects,” or “repairing and reversing channel degradation in the Apalachicola River.”

Ultimately, the Corps’ environmental impact statement declares the proposed manual update includes “operational adjustments that best balance the multiple purposes of the [Corps’] projects in the ACF Basin, including those that would sustain and improve environmental conditions in the basin.”

Astronaut John Glenn, who died at age 95 this month, was the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962. Rocket science has been transformed since. ACF water policy isn’t rocket science. This updated manual is long overdue.

Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (December 16, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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